BWW Reviews: WNO's Eye-Popping MAGIC FLUTE Casts a Musical Spell

BWW Reviews: WNO's Eye-Popping MAGIC FLUTE Casts a Musical Spell
Joshua Hopkins as Papageno with Maureen McKay
as Pamina in Washington National Opera's THE
MAGIC FLUTE at the Kennedy Center.

One of the most enduring and crowd-pleasing pieces in the opera canon has made a splashy entrance into the Washington National Opera's 2014 season and it is a must see for fans and novices alike.

THE MAGIC FLUTE is a musical fairy tale with stunning effects, a steadfast hero, villains, comic relief, and some of the most sublime music the world has heard. And it's ready to enthrall audiences once again in the Kennedy Center's Opera House.

Didn't I just use the words "most sublime music in the world" in the previous paragraph? Yes, and I think I can safely make that statement since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart provided the sparking and intricate score. From the effervescent "Overture" - truly one of the best ever composed - to the choral finale - a stunning paean to the sun - Mozart's last full opera score capped his career on more than one high note.

Even though the opera world leans to the composer as the "go-to" person when looking at the great works, Mozart's librettist Emanuel Schikaneder contribution to THE MAGIC FLUTE's place in history cannot be ignored. Schikaneder's delightful fairy tale and lyrical gems match Mozart's music perfectly. For this production, Washington National Opera's dramaturg Kelley Rourke created a fresh and poetic English version. Since the opera is sung in English with projected titles, the clarity of the story shines through beautifully.

When the curtain rises, the adventure is already in high action: hero Tamino is being pursued by a magnificent serpent. Three mysterious ladies assist him in slaying the beast and Tamino is immediately pulled into a plot to rescue a maiden from a secret society. The girl, Pamina, is the daughter of the impressive Queen of the Night. Tamino and his reluctant sidekick, the bird-catcher Papageno, dive in to their quest to save Pamina, and must endure strange tests at the hands of Sarastro, a sorcerer and leader of a secret brotherhood. (Think Freemasons from outer space Egypt. See the opera, see if you agree with me.)

Opera aficionados should be pleased by the fine orchestra work by the WNO Orchestra and the conducting of WNO music director Philippe Auguin. (One caveat: there were some draggy tempi during at least one of Pamina's arias.) The opening night (May 3) cast handled their roles and musical duties with skill and grace. Singing some of Mozart's showiest vocal pieces, soprano Kathryn Lewek brought an imperious presence and clear, high trills to the Queen of the Night. As her daughter Pamina, Maureen McKay combined a charming stage presence with a soprano voice of sweet clarity and sincerity. McKay is the kind of opera singer who gives opera a good name these days - her acting is equal to her musical artistry.

As her rescuer, tenor Joseph Kaiser is another performer who matches a magnificent voice with a natural acting

BWW Reviews: WNO's Eye-Popping MAGIC FLUTE Casts a Musical Spell
Maureen McKay as Pamina and Joseph Kaiser
as Tamino in WNO's THE MAGIC FLUTE.

style. Tamino's story is central to THE MAGIC FLUTE and Kaiser effortlessly carries the day, while sharing the stage with his counterparts like a pro. As his hapless companion Papageno, Joshua Hopkins charms, clowns, and endears himself as the bird-catcher who just wants a wife. Papageno has some of the opera's catchiest tunes and funniest bits, and Hopkins is masterful whether singing in his warm baritone or reacting to the scary tests they must suffer through at the hands of Sarastro.

Speaking of Sarastro, the May 3 opening featured the performance of Washington native Soloman Howard as the mysterious leader of the brotherhood. In his third season with the WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, Howard is a commanding presence and possesses a sonorous bass voice that handles Mozart's music with the skill of a seasoned performer. I am probably not the only person to peg Howard as one to watch out for a young artist who has a bright future in the musical world.

THE MAGIC FLUTE is so accessible, thanks to the simple story and Mozart's score, it is the perfect title to use to introduce children to the wonders of opera and this production certainly fits the bill.

The true icing on the cake of WNO's production of THE MAGIC FLUTE is the eye-popping design work of Japanese-American artist Jun Kaneko. Making his WNO debut as a costume and set designer, Kaneko has raised the bar from start to finish. In the first moments of the production, as Mozart's overture is played in the pit, the audience sat in silence as a curtain-screen of kaleidoscopic simplicity came to life on the stage, immediately weaving a spell. This MAGIC FLUTE truly inhabits its own fantasy world where geometric shapes take on a whimsical nature and complements the beauty of this musical masterpiece.

For a bonus, some of Kaneko's larger than life sculptures are on display in the Kennedy Center's Hall of Nations. To get some insight on the artist - and opera designer - check out this report by Mo Rocca from CBS Good Morning from 2013. Click HERE.

THE MAGIC FLUTE - Washington National Opera

Performed in English with English Titles

A co-production with San Francisco Opera Association, Opera Omaha, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Opera Carolina.

May 3-18, 2014, Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The Magic Flute opens on Saturday, May 3, 2014 and runs for 10 performances; other dates are May 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 15, 17, and 18. The special Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Performance is Friday, May 16. For more information, visit

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Jeffrey Walker Jeffrey Walker is a former hometown newspaper man who now lives his life as a high school theatre teacher, husband and father. Currently he is a regular contributor to DC Theatre Scene and Broadway World's DC region, writing reviews and feature stories. He has recently added television coverage to his purview, as well. He will be one of the BWW-TV's new recappers for the current season.

A developing playwright, his play "Dracula: An Undead Romance" has been performed in two venues so far. He co-wrote "Fleet Street Horrors," inspired by the original penny dreadful account of Sweeney Todd. Jeffrey is also an experienced director and actor and has performed in musicals, Shakespeare, classics, operettas, and contemporary works. He is a graduate of Roanoke College.

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